Is the Western alliance really in selfish disarray?; Dangers, yes -- but opportunities as well
America's alliance with Western Europe is suffering a strain in many ways unlike any it has experienced in the past. One is tempted to call it a crisis -- a crisis of confidence. But crisis is an overworked word. It portrays the situation in too dramatic a light.Skip to next paragraph
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The potential for crisis is certainly there. But erosion, or drift, might be better words to describe this apparent deterioration in relations between the United States and Western Europe.
Like all potential crises, this one offers opportunities as well as dangers. It could result in a healthier, rather than weaker, alliance. But it might be a mistake to start by assuming that this is simply a bad moment which will pass.
The current strain involves a wider range of disagreements between America and its West European allies than any of the crises of the past. The hostage-taking in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have brought to the surface seemingly fundamental differences between the US and Western Europe over how to deal with the Soviet Union and with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
When it comes to the Carter administration, European diplomats point to what they describe as a lack of consistency and clear leadership. American diplomats say that the Europeans sometimes use the leadership issue as an excuse for avoid ing responsibilities -- or failing to accommodate American desires.
Whatever the truth of that American allegation may be, the "Carter factor," as some Europeans call it, falls far shorts of fully explaining the current strain in US-Europe relations. It is clearly a factor that exacerbates the situation. But European respect for the United States and confidence in its leadership were in decline some years before President Carter took office. Social turmoil, Vietnam, and Watergate all took their toll.
Of more basic importance, perhaps, than President Carter's leadership, is the failure of a succession of American presidents to get their way on many issues with the US Congress. This has baffled some Europeans and added to the impression that the United States is unpredictable. Overwhelming votes earlier this month in the US senate and House of Representatives against President Carter's oil import fee are seen as examples of how Americans tend to place political expediency ahead of their own long-term interests.
Western Europe, in the meantime, has grown stronger both economically and politically. It has become more of a competitor with the United States it. no longer automatically accepts American proposals but vigorously scrutinizes and questions them.
all this has taken place against a background of fundamental shifts in the balance of power. The Soviet Union has caught up with the United States in the development of nuclear weapons, and it now can project its conventional military power, in ways that only the United States once could, around the world.
Further uncertainty has been generated in Western Europe by an economic recession, a fear that Western oil supplies might be reduced or cut off, and a conviction that the United States does not have the force in place, at this point at least, to back up President Carter's decision to draw a defense line against the Soviets in and around the Persian Gulf.
Elections in three of the key allied nations -- in West Germany and the US late this year and in France in mid-1981 -- pose a short-term danger for the alliance. The public posturing of candidates could create new tensions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many West Europeans suspect that President Carter toughened his public stance toward the Soviet Union as much because of domestic political reasons and a need to counter an image of "weakness," as he did because of the realities surrounding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Europeans question whether the Americans can keep their eye on long-term interests in the midst of an election campaign.
In France, an occasional show of independence vis-a-vis the Americans may make good election politics. But it can easily be misunderstood in the United States.
The major irritant in US-European relations at the moment is the West European decision to go ahead, despite US opposition, with a diplomatic initiative on the Middle East that would support Palestinian "self-determination."
Even more significant over the long run, however, are three dangers for the United States that may at the moment seem remote but that could emerge should present trends continue: